All of us are seeing innovation, disruption and evidence of a general rethinking of “the way things used to be” all around us. My CFoW colleague Ben Pring and I recently attended Thomas Friedman’s “Next New World” summit at UCSF (at the massive, sparkling new Mission Bay campus – well done UC, and Fiat Lux!). Friedman’s event looked at every angle of what a flat world looks like in the 2010s and beyond. The story of course, being digitization, disruption – and what we’re all going to do about it. Great questions were asked, but not a lot of great answers to the profound questions, unfortunately. Friedman himself stated that he should have called his seminal book “The World is Flattening” – and clearly today’s story ain’t about India anymore. Thus, after a day of debate (including Friedman’s entire cohort of the NY Times technology writing corps) the tone was decidedly, um – mixed, on the future. Amidst all the wondering about “how’s my kid going to get a job”, explicit discussion that the US education system is broken was a topic du jour (and the future of work runs right through it. Ben Pring wondered with me, sotto voce - if universities as we know them might the “next Detroit”… shiver…).
Which brings me to the point of this post: one of the real bright spots of the day (and to be sure, there were many glimmers of a better – if different – future) was the discussion with Quirky CEO Ben Kaufman. Quirky is a fascinating invention development company that works with small inventors to bring their ideas to life. In essence, using today’s disruptive technologies to help those who have truly new, unique and “cool” idea have a shot at seeing the light of day. Case in point: the story of the development of “Pluck”, an innovative, suction-based egg separator, and working with Bed, Bath and Beyonds across the country to bring it to stores within a couple weeks of its production. Or the broom-dustpan combo with innovative “teeth” that scrapes dust bunnies of your sweeper. We’re talkin’ products that feature cleaning and suction, folks… Move over, James Dyson.
Who among us hasn’t seen this outfit on late-night TV and wondered: “there has to be a better way”? With that as a background, Kaufman’s observations, thoughts and insights really lit up the crowd. As he talked about Quirky and their model, it made perfect sense. Kaufman’s own story is interesting enough: he did not get a college degree (hello Jobs, hello Gates… is there a pattern emerging in “New Detroit”?) He spent time as a youth often accompanying his mom to her factory job, and had first-hand experience seeing how injection molds work. Fast-forwarding, the Quirky story eventually was born.
While the linear “bringing-inventions-to-life” processes of Quirky are cool, some of their peripheral back-end experiences as they’ve grown are notable. Backstopping and otherwise protecting Quirky inventors from patent infringement is a part of it – he specifically cited some of the back-and-forth tussles they’ve had with OXO.
As Kaufman talked about how Quirky brings inventions to life – fast – for talented “little guy/gal” inventors, you could feel the UCSF audience rooting for the guy, and palpable moments where the audience wanted to spontaneously carry Kaufman around on its shoulders. And he seemed like a really nice guy too. Amidst a day discussing many uncertainties, challenges and opportunities for the future, Ben Kaufman and friends seem like a neat example of getting it right, and helping good ideas come to light.
A coda to this story: So there I was in Bed Bath and Beyond, knowing that my dad would get a kick out of the “Pluck” separator as something of a “stocking stuffer” for Father’s Day, which was the next day. Walking the aisles, I hunted, hunted, and hunted some more for a Pluck. No luck. What I did see was OXO equipment – everywhere (this is no knock on their Good Grips stuff – it’s great). I asked a store associate – had he seen one, heard about the Pluck? From this cool company called Quirky? He looked at me like I was slightly nuts. Again, no luck on the Pluck. Can you see where this is headed? “Let me look it up in our system … gee, no … we have none in stock. There are none in stock at the next nearest location”. Dang it. “We’ve got some cool OXO egg separators for your dad?” I wondered if I was being punked – can my Code Halo save me? I pulled up the Bed, Bath and Beyond website on my iPhone, and looked for whether a Pluck might be in stock somewhere in entire radius of the North Bay, East Bay and SF. Zero Pluck action. Father’s Day is tomorrow. Where is the digitization and disruption when I need it? Paging Dr. Machiavelli… and when do the Amazon and Google drones take up the air-war in the siege of the New Detroit of big-box retailers? That said, good on ya Ben Kaufman and team … keep going.